Chip MacGregor

August 21, 2013

What's the best way to approach an editor at a conference?


I’ve been trying to catch up on all the questions people have sent in, so let me share a handful of queries: “When speaking with an editor at a conference, what is the best way to approach the allotted 15 minutes? Do I focus on the editor and the titles she’s worked on? Do I focus on my novel? Do I bring a one sheet?”

The best way to approach your time at an editorial appointment is to do some research and practice. Check to make sure the editor you’re meeting actually acquires books in your genre. Find out what you can about the editor’s likes and dislikes. Then practice what you’re going to say — sharing your name, your book idea, the conflict, theme, genre,and  hook. Be clear and succinct, and rehearse your talk out loud, so you know what it feels like to say the words. Be ready to engage in dialogue with the editor. Dress professionally, and bring some words to show them (many like a one-sheet; I prefer the first five pages). In my view, the focus of a successful editorial appointment is your book, so think through how to talk about your book in an engaging way without sounding like just another pitch.

Another person wrote to ask, “Should I pay more attention to a literary agent’s list of authors they represent, or to their agency’s list of authors? In other words, if a Big Deal Agency has bestselling authors, how much does that mean if the agent I’m talking to doesn’t represent any of those writers?”

That’s an interesting question, since every agency tries to promote their bestselling authors. I was at Alive Communications when we represented the Left Behind series that sold 70 million copies worldwide — and while I didn’t have much of anything to do with that series, I certainly mentioned that we represented it when I was a young agent introducing myself. How much does that mean? A bit, since it means the agent you’re talking to is hanging out with successful agents who clearly know what they’re doing, even if the one you’re pitching your book to is new. That agent also gets to take your book back and talk with the more experienced people in the home office about it, so there’s certainly a benefit to working with a successful agency. But sure, you’d really like to make sure the agent you’re talking to is competent, organized, and consistent. A new agent may lack the Big Name Author you’re looking for… but he or she also may have more time to work with you in preparing your work for publication.

One writer sent this: “What would you say are the ingredients to a great novel?”

Bestselling novelist Susan May Warren and I just taught a class together on this at the Oregon conference. We said that the four hallmarks of a great novel are heroism (the protagonist does something that is considered heroic, and does it even though that type of behavior may not come naturally to them), sacrifice (the character gives up something dear to them in order to better the life of someone else), redemption (the characters go through circumstances that change them, and reveals they have become better people, having overcome past failures), and justice (good triumphs over evil). Of course, in great fiction I find that characters I care about face the big questions of life (who am I? why am I here? who is God? what is the meaning of life? who do I love and am loved by?) and make decisions that affect their lives — decisions I may or may not agree with, but which cause me to reflect on my own life.  It’s that sort of reflection that allows fiction to become life-changing.

Someone asked me, “You talk quite a bit about mentors in writing and publishing. Who would you say was a mentor in your life?”

Brennan Manning. He was much more gentle than I am, and I love how he always tried to move everyone around him toward being better people. He saw faith in God as something real to be lived out, rather than a set of written behavioral guidelines to follow. He was aware of his own issues, but understood that his problems didn’t exclude him from the Kingdom. And he recognized that he was put here on earth – that we are ALL put here on earth – to be agents of grace, even amidst our sin and struggles. I used to be Brennan’s agent, and when I was turning 40, he shared a profound thought with me– that most people stop growing spiritually before their 40th birthday. Most guys are who they are by the time they reach middle age. So he challenged me to be a better human being by the time I was 50, and to not be satisfied with “just being okay” in my spiritual walk. Loved the man. And he was a mystic, which pleases me no end, since I think a lot of American Christianity is rule-based Phariseeism, all dressed up in a white shirt and hair gel – no concern for others, solely focused on being “right,” and afraid of the spiritual side of grace. Brennan continually tweaked those people, but always seemed to answer them with loving, gentle grace. He left us just a few months ago, and the two of us had lost touch, but I think the world has lost one of its most powerful thinkers.

Finally, someone asked, “If you were to write a book, what would it be about?”

Well, I’ve written a number of books, but I long ago decided to set most of my own writing aside in order to work on the writing of the authors I have the privilege of representing. I do write on this blog most every day, just to keep my hand in it. And I’ve got a plan to create a career development guide for novelists, hopefully in the not-too-distant future. I’ve also been stewing on some short stories about growing up in a small town in the Pacific Northwest, and I have long planned to work on a book about the Great Schism of 1378 – a passion of mine for years, and one of the single most important events in the history of the church, but long forgotten by historians who prefer to focus on “war” rather than “ideas.”

Got a question about writing or publishing? Send it along and we’ll try to think up an answer.

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  • Robin Patchen says:

    The Ragamuffin Gospel is one of my favorite books. I didn’t know you’d represented him. What a blessing.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Not that book — I think that was Kathy Helmers. But Brennan was a great guy, and a great client, Robin.

    • Robin Patchen says:

      Still, I’m sure it was wonderful to work with him. He seems like the kind of guy who would always make you think.

  • Judith Robl says:

    Chip, thank you for a thoughtful post. I love the writerly advice you give so freely and so well. But this time, you moved much more than my ambitions.

    “And he was a mystic, which pleases me no end, since I think a lot of
    American Christianity is rule-based Phariseeism, all dressed up in a
    white shirt and hair gel – no concern for others, solely focused on
    being “right,” and afraid of the spiritual side of grace. ”

    You’ve just put your finger on the reason much of Christianity in the US is ineffectual. That same Phariseeism is the cause of dissension over trifles when Christians need to be united to move the world around us.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Thanks, Judith. I agree — I think that’s what turns people off to faith. Nice of you to come on and comment.

  • Karen Pashley says:

    After reading today’s blog post, I had to write and thank you for your advice on the four ingredients of a great novel. I’ve not seen it summed up quite so perfectly before. I found myself smiling and nodding, thinking of my favorite books and how they blended heroism, sacrifice, redemption and justice into page-turning, life changing reads for me.

    I also wholly agree with your perception of American Christianity today. Living in Nashville (the epicenter of the Bible Bubble, as I call it), I come across many well-meaning believers in my ” forty to fifty something” age range, relying on what they’ve been taught all their Sunday-schooled lives rather than what the Teacher wants to teach us everyday about living a life surrendered to His will.
    Disguised as casserole lovin’ neighbors, so many women I know are unwilling to put down the rule book and just experience what God has for them as unique creations.

    Thanks for the thought provoking post.

  • Peter DeHaan says:

    Chip, the insight from Brennan Manning is profound. May I always continue to grow! Thanks for the encouragement.

  • laurietomlinson says:

    Thanks for the insight again, Chip. I told you this when I met you in Tulsa, but I love that you got to know Brennan Manning. I owe a huge part of what I believe to him. He got it through my thick skull that it isn’t about me or what I do, it’s all about grace! Here’s to constant spiritual growth, confident exploration, and maintaining that mysticism in a society focused on self.

    “Grace tells us that we are accepted just as we are. We may not be the kind of people we want to be, we may be a long way from our goals, we may have more failures than achievements, we may not be wealthy or powerful or spiritual, we may not even be happy, but we are nonetheless accepted by God, held in his hands. Such is his promise to us in Jesus Christ, a promise we can trust.”

  • Jaime Wright says:

    Eeek! I was just challenged. To keep growing in my Spiritual walk. Sometimes I’m too busy “doing” and forget the “growing”. And Amen, btw, I left my hair gel behind years ago. Ticked people off to Jesus and never drew them.

  • Julie Surface Johnson says:

    I wish I could have known Brennan Manning. One life-changing suggestion he made was to remember God’s loving presence and claim His fatherly protection by doing this: Inhaling “Abba” and exhaling “I belong to You.” I find this simple exercise centers me and helps me focus on the majors.

  • Peggotty says:

    “And he was a mystic, which pleases me no end, since I think a lot of American Christianity is rule-based Phariseeism, all dressed up in a white shirt and hair gel – no concern for others, solely focused on being “right,” and afraid of the spiritual side of grace.”
    Love this. I’m very glad you’re writing as well, Mr. M.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Thanks, Peggotty. I believe faith has a mystic side that can’t really be explained away, no matter how much we’d like to.

    • Peggotty says:

      I couldn’t agree more. I think we’re often afraid of things we don’t understand. I love the metaphysical aspect of faith.

  • Cherry Odelberg says:

    Great, usable information.

    And – I hope you get around to writing those books. Pacific Northwest, coupled with the Great Schism of 1378 sounds like a great Twilight of Episcopal Reign saga.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      I hadn’t thought about putting them together, Cherry, but now that you mention it… I wonder if I could include Amish buggies and vampires?

  • Jan Cline says:

    I also like what you said about what makes a great novel. I’ve been working with Susan a bit and had my eyes opened to the elements that were missing in my novels. It’s a good thing I don’t mind rewrites! And meeting with agents and editors is one of my favorite things about going to a conference. I like the concise advice you gave…a good plan of “attack”. Will put all that into use at ACFW. Thanks, Chip.

  • Rick Barry says:

    I especially enjoyed your thoughts concerning the ingredients of a great novel. I’ve been exploring this same topic via Christopher Vogler’s classic book, The Writer’s Journey, plus The Hero’s Two Journeys by Vogler and Michael Hauge. Although the bulk of their experience deals with screenplays, I’m enjoying applying their insights to my current novel m.s.

    As always, thanks for sharing insights when you could be doing many other things, Chip.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      I think THE WRITER’S JOURNEY is a fabulous resource, Rick. Thanks for bringing that up!

  • JeanneTakenaka says:

    I’m with Amy. I love that your mentor challenged you to continue growing in your faith throughout your life. Thank you for the elements that make a novel great. I’ve heard Susie share them before, but somehow I still need to be reminded. Great words today!

  • Amy Leigh Simpson says:

    Great post, Chip! Love this line..”And he recognized that he was put here on earth – that we are ALL put here on earth – to be agents of grace, even amidst our sin and struggles.” Beautifully said.

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